Feb 8, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today, Expert Voices contributor Raphael Gindrat writes about managing AV fleets and Henry Claypool looks at accessibility issues in AV development.

Situational awareness: Former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Congress’ longest-serving member, died last night. He’ll be remembered as a champion of the auto industry who also helped write most of America's major environmental and energy laws. In his 90s, he was also acclaimed as a Twitter savant.

1 big thing: What AVs know about the rest of us

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Autonomous vehicles don't just use cameras to help steer themselves. To keep improving, they're also capturing and storing images of everything that surrounds them — which means they might catch you on camera if you're in the vicinity.

Why it matters: This is a big issue that privacy experts are just starting to think about. It's not clear who else might see those images — and without concrete rules on how data collected outside the vehicle may be used, bystanders' privacy could be at risk.

The big picture: Connected vehicles pose all sorts of potential privacy issues for car owners.

  • Your car's navigation system needs to know where you are to give directions.
  • To enable hands-free dialing, you usually sync your phone's contacts to the car.
  • When you use Apple CarPlay or Google's Android Auto, you may be exposing data from your car to third-party app providers.

In 2014, 20 automakers signed a voluntary set of automotive privacy principles, effective with 2017 models, agreeing to ask permission before using or sharing sensitive information about occupants, and to limit what they share with government and law enforcement.

None of those principles governs data collected about bystanders outside a vehicle. If the cameras on a fleet of AVs plying your neighborhood routinely capture your daily movements, you could be sharing a lot more than you realize.

"If someone knows where you’ve been — an abortion clinic, a mosque or church, or leaving a lover's apartment — it reveals private information about you."
Lauren Smith, AV policy expert, Future of Privacy Forum

What we're hearing: We asked a half dozen automakers and AV tech companies how long they keep camera footage, how it is stored and who has access. The handful that replied assured us they take privacy very seriously, but didn't offer any specifics about bystander privacy.

People can't expect privacy in public places, but there are some related precedents for how to limit potential exposure.

Yes, but: The situation may be different for AVs that rely on huge stored databases to train the car's algorithms, Smith notes.

  • Extensive, repeated mapping of a neighborhood is needed to develop the technology.
  • To design safer systems, it might be important to clearly see a pedestrian's face to know whether they are paying attention to traffic.

The bottom line: It's possible to retain only safety-critical data while discarding other sensitive information, privacy experts say, but steps must be started now.

Read more

2. The ride-hailing challenges autonomy can't solve

A ride-hailing vehicle in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ride-hailing companies like Uber, Lyft and China's Didi have dominated the emerging mobility market and are now investing in autonomous technology, which Goldman Sachs projects would accelerate growth and increase profitability by eliminating driver subsidies, Bestmile CEO Raphael Gindrat writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: Even with AV fleets, however, ride-hailing companies may struggle to improve their bottom lines without addressing other inefficiencies in their business model.

Where it stands: Uber and Lyft have grown dramatically, but even though they aren't close to making a profit, they are getting hockey-stick valuations. Their investments in autonomous mobility have been seen as critical to profitability.

The catch: Simply replacing ride-hailing cars with robotaxis will not fix the supply-demand mismatch, which could be economically disastrous if ride-hailing businesses own their fleets.

  • Currently, they don’t lose money when vehicles are empty because they only pay drivers when a passenger is in the car.
  • Then there are the capital costs of self-driving fleets, which Bloomberg has estimated as an initial outlay of $306 billion.

The bottom line: Moving more people with fewer vehicles and collecting more fares per trip (as in pooled rides, for example) could smooth the road to profitability.

Go deeper

Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile, which has developed a fleet-management platform.

3. U.S. automakers risk falling behind foreign firms on accessibility

The Volkswagen AG factory in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Toyota, Renault, and VW have announced concept AVs that could be wheelchair accessible, but American automakers have yet to share wheelchair accessible design concepts, policy expert Henry Claypool writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: If American auto manufacturers cede leadership on accessibility, they could end up forfeiting leadership on AV design more broadly and minimizing the role their cars can play in ridesharing long-term.

Background: AVs are initially expected to roll out in ridesharing fleets, which will likely opt for cars that serve the needs of as many potential passengers as possible.

What's happening: The rise of ridesharing and the possibility that people will ditch traditional car ownership in favor of transportation services has put an impetus on automakers to design cars that prioritize passenger space.

  • Cars will need to be roomier and more comfortable to accommodate more passengers, including wheelchair users or parents with strollers.
  • On these fronts, the concept AVs from Toyota, Renault, and VW appear to be leading the field. American automakers haven't shown they are making this a priority.
  • Plus, ridesharing companies operating in the U.S. are beginning to serve people with disabilities in certain markets. They will need to partner with automakers who have factored accessibility into vehicle design.

The bottom line: Companies that successfully develop seating configurations that allow for more riders, and for riders to have full mobility independence, are likely to offer the most attractive models for ridesharing companies.

Read more

Claypool is a former director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability.

4. Driving the conversation

Package: GM's incentive plan for Cruise chief points to IPO (Ben Klayman — Reuters)

  • Between the lines: Wall Street has been eager for GM to separate its self-driving car business from the traditional manufacturing business. Dan Ammann's pay package as Cruise's new CEO — $25.6 million in restricted stock units that pay out only in the event of a sale or an IPO within 10 years — is a clear sign it will probably happen.

Delivery: Amazon eases into self-driving tech by joining Aurora's $530 million funding surge (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • Why it matters: Amazon hasn't said much about its AV ambitions, but if there's one company that has a lot to gain from deploying automated delivery trucks, it's the giant online retailer. Watch this development closely.

Trucks: Embark has disclosed the disengagement stats of its self-driving semi-trucks (Nicholas Shields — Business Insider)

  • The trucking startup reported the human operator had to take control of the wheel once every 1,392 miles in the 4th quarter, about the same rate as GM Cruise was experiencing in 2017.
  • My thought bubble: If 18-wheelers are going to drive themselves on straight, flat highways, they need to do better than this.
5. What I'm driving

2019 Hyundai Kona Electric. Photo: Hyundai

This week I'm driving the Hyundai Kona Electric, the cute and emission-free crossover that was named NACTOY's 2019 Utility Vehicle of the Year.

As a NACTOY juror, I had a quick spin in an early version of the Kona EV during the judging process last October, but I was anxious for more seat time this week.

Details: The EPA gives Kona EV an impressive 258-mile driving range, but you can only expect that in California — where it's on sale first — not here in Michigan, where freezing temperatures sap about 100 miles off the battery range.

It's a zippy ride, as most electrics are, with the equivalent of 201 horsepower, and aggressive regenerative braking that allows for one-pedal driving.

  • When you lift off the accelerator, the car's kinetic energy is fed back into the battery, giving the sensation of braking.
  • EV fans love one-pedal driving, but I often find it jarring. In the Kona EV, you can pull the paddles behind the steering wheel to adjust the level of regeneration.

Hyundai’s safety package is standard on all models, including forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping and blind-spot assists, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance and automated high beams.

The bottom line: At $37,495, before the available $7,500 federal tax credit, Hyundai's Kona Electric shoots to the front of the class. People still waiting for that $35,000 Tesla Model 3 they ordered back in 2016 might want to check it out.

Joann Muller